Paul Cezanne and The Card Players

Paul Cezanne and The Card Players

‘Painting stands for no other end than itself. The artist paints an apple or a head: it is simply a pretext for line and colour, nothing more’

On January 19, 1839 Paul Cezanne was born in Aix-en-Provence to a successful retailer and his mistress. Cezanne’s domineering father Louis-Auguste Cezanne, and his mother Anne-Elisabeth-Honorine Auburt, did not marry until Paul was five. This may well have branded him with the stigma of illegitimacy causing him discomfort as a child.

At 13 Cezanne attended Bourbon College in Aix where he met Emile Zola (who went on to be a famous novelist). This friendship was to last almost a lifetime. Cezanne attended classes at a local drawing academy. When Zola moved to Paris to study he sent letters to Cezanne filling him with the desire to go to Paris to paint.

Cezanne’s uncomfortable relationship with his father made it difficult to approach him about his dreams. Louise-Auguste was not interested in art and desired his son to gain a worthy profession.

In 1859 Jas de Bouffan, an impressive 18th-century manor became the family home and Cezanne spent a year studying law. He was a successful scholar passing all his first examinations. His desire to go to Paris, however, finally overwhelmed his fear of his father and he approached him confessing his wishes to become an artist. His appeals were met with disdain. It was not until April 1861 that his father conceded and allowed his removal to Paris, supplying him with a basic allowance for his expenses.

Cezanne’s stay in Paris lasted only six months. He destroyed many canvases during bouts of black depression and returned home full of self-doubt rejecting his chosen career. A year spent working with his father, however, convinced him to try a painter’s life again.

Cezanne returned to Paris suffering a further set-back when he failed the entrance exam for the official painting school – the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His paintings were also rejected by the Salon. Pissarro introduced Cezanne to Impressionist painters such as Manet and Degas. He gained a reputation for being an eccentric and quite odd after exhibiting strange antisocial behaviours such as refusing to shake hands with Manet giving the excuse that he (Cezanne) hadn’t washed for eight days.

At 30 Cezanne seemed to turn a corner with his art. He changed his style and his habits. He met Hortense Fiquet. She became his mistress. Although they seemed to be very different, their relationship, for a long time kept secret from the artist’s father, lasted for many years. The focus of Cezanne’s art which had previously been black and morbid, gradually changed and he began to concentrate on landscape subjects.

After the birth of his son (also hidden from the artist’s father), Cezanne moved with his family to Pontoise, where Pissarro lived. Over the next two years the two men worked together. Staying first at Pontoise and then at Auvers nearby, Cezanne spent long periods with Pissarro, who was nine years older. Pissarro was like a father figure and mentor introducing to Cezannne the techniques of Impressionist painting. Cezanne’s work was then exhibited alongside other Impressionist works in 1874.

Pissarro’s influence was important in Cezanne’s artistic development. His palette lightened somewhat and he remained throughout his career devoted to the practice of painting directly from nature. However Cezanne reacted against the lack of structure in the Impressionist paintings and said that he intended to make Impressionism into “something solid and durable, like the art of the museums”. He did indeed move decisively beyond Impressionism and is placed alongside the Post-Impressionist artists Seurat, Van Gogh and Gauguin.

For many years still-lifes and landscapes were Cezanne’s preoccupation. Completing more than 200 still-life compostions in his lifetime, Cezanne wanted to ‘conquer Paris with an apple’, and become famous for his still life paintings. ‘Apples and Oranges’ is one of his most well known still-life compositions. Applying the same methodical analysis to these works as he did with his landscapes Cezanne was concerned with recording minute variations in tone and colour observed over long periods as well as the forms from empirical geometry he considered the most frequent in nature – the ‘cylinder, sphere and the cone’.

In 1881 Cezanne’s brother-in-law bought a house situated on a hill overlooking the Arc valley with the mountain of Saint-Victoire in the distance. Mont Sainte-Victoire became one of his favourite subjects. It was the essence of all that he had felt had eluded the Impressionists – firmness, solidity, permanence.

1886 saw the publication of Emile Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre, the main character of which was a failed artist and bore many resemblances to Cezanne. The artist was deeply hurt and ended his friendship with Zola. In the same year, Cezanne ended the deception and revealed the existense of his family to his father and mother. He then married Hortense. Later, in October, Cezanne’s father died leaving his son an inheritence which made him wealthy and independent.

The next few years saw Cezanne become increasingly withdrawn. His family lived in Paris while he stayed in Aix, with his sister Marie. He visited Paris, less and less and stopped sending paintings to the Salon preferring to live the life of a recluse. It seemed that he was almost forgotten, some younger artists who had become interested in his work had assumed that he was dead.

In his late fifties Cezanne’s paintings finally began to attract the attention they deserved. In 1895, Ambroise Vollard, the famous art dealer, organised an exhibit of Cezanne’s work in Paris. It had been 20 years since his work had been seen in the French capital. There were murmers of apreciation and acceptance of his genious. Vollard then, in 1897, bought every painting from Cezanne’s studio in Fontainebleu. Young admirers began to travel to Aix to see him at work.

Cezanne’s work continued to evolve. He revisited subjects over and over again each time varying his approach. ‘The Great Bathers’ a monumental piece, showing figures of women in the landscape is a revision of a favourite subject, first attempted in 1875.

Jas de Bouffan had to be sold in 1899 to settle Cezanne’s mother’s estate. He moved to a flat in Aix and later buit a studio on the hill-side of the Chemin des Lauves outside Aix. He walked there to work each day.

Though his health detriorated, in later years, Cezanne still religiously went to work everyday. Usually he travelled by carriage as the distance was to much of a strain for him to walk. One day, angered by the increase in the fare, his decided to walk and was caught in a downpour. The chill that resulted subsequently became pneumonia and a week later, on 22 October 1906, Cezanne was dead.

The art of Paul Cezanne is considered today as being of enormous importance to the developoment of modern art. From his search for underlying structure of the composition came Cubism and then Abstraction. Cezanne’s use of colour as tone and his obsession with the formal elements of composition made it possible for artists who came after to question what they saw and how they represented what they saw on their canvas.

Pablo Picasso said the following of the artist “My one and only master… Cezanne was like the father of us all”. Cezanne is therefore often described as the “father of modern art”. Whether such and accolade is justifed or not the critics can judge, it is clear, however that Cezanne was a visionary ahead of his time. The art historian Lawrence Gowing once remarked that Cezanne was ‘reaching out for a kind of modernity which does not exist, and still does not’.